When musicians disappear for a bit, that doesn’t always mean they’re not still crafting new work. Maybe they’re simply rearranging their priorities.
On Ben Rosenbush’s new record, Disparate Spheres, he and his band, the Brighton, revisit some themes from past albums, but this time through the lens of someone older, wiser, and more intent on creating purpose. Disparate Spheres is a meditation set to music, eyes to the sky, palms open. Rosenbush allows notes to linger, reveling in a world of vast possibilities before reminding us that we walk a thin line between life and death.
City Pages sat down with Rosenbush before his album release at the Hook and Ladder on Friday to find out what he’s been up to—and to ponder the afterlife.
City Pages: It's been about six years since your last album. What have you been up to since you last released music?
Ben Rosenbush: It’s been a long journey finishing this record. Life happened. Since I began this record I’ve welcomed my two kids into this world and started school on the side as well. I’m glad we finally got to this point, but pushing this music out into the world has asked us all to be committed to the long game.
CP: During that time, were you ever worried that you were taking too long to put out new work? How did you calm those fears?
BR: Of course, I was worried! But though taking this long may have sacrificed some of the initial momentum we had going into this project, the waiting helped me personally to remember why I make music in the first place. The effort is pure in itself and isn’t beholden to a clock. The effort to make something that holds meaning for yourself and hopefully for others is one that lives outside of time. In that sense, I think I’m right on time because this is when the final notes fell into place.
CP: The songwriting on your last album had so many pastoral elements, but this new one took on an almost otherworldly feel. What shifted you into this kind of writing?
BR: I used to have a clearer process in my songwriting. But now it feels like my writing is more defined by forgetting what my process is, or at least not focusing on what it is or isn’t, and instead allowing myself to be opened up by something—a word, a moment of interaction, a passing billboard, whatever—and letting that be a start of some kind. Most of these songs have a spiritual reaching to them which I think would translate as this otherworldly sense. But as much as the lyrics and sounds reach for the stars so to speak I feel that they are just as much looking for a solid ground—for the unknown to collide with the known, for these disparate spheres to combine.
CP: How did you develop your talent for crafting melodies?
BR: I don’t know what crafts each of our ears but mine has certainly been shaped by growing up singing in the church where we all sang melodies that everyone could grab ahold of. I think that experience combined with my own need and want to be close to something beautiful causes me to try and string the melodies together I do.
Another aspect of this has to be forgetfulness. We are all surrounded by a constant flow of music. We all internalize floods of sound, and I think that often a key to writing a good melody is getting a bunch of good melodies inside you, forgetting them and their source in a cognitive sense, and then singing them out in a kind of creative misremembrance. There must be something like this happening with songwriters.
But another way melodies come for me often is via the piano. I often feel something like the shape of a melody that is connected to a mood—maybe a mood brought on after a hard moment with someone, or even a good moment in the day—and I’ll sit at the piano and try to draw out that shape so to speak. That’s sometimes where the best melodies come from, an emotion I’m weighted with that needs attention, that has an interior shape, that then finds its sketch on the keys.
CP: What was the process of making this album like?
Ben Rosenbush: Much of these songs came the year before we started recording, which was about two years ago. But over the course of recording we started each morning with some “morning stretches” where each person played something spontaneous and then responded to each other. From those “stretches” came the collaborative vignettes, “Eric Garner et al.” and “Exiles.”
Not counting those two, the oldest song on the record is “Miner of the Mountain,” and the youngest is “World to Come.” Matt Patrick also has a few co-writes with me on the record. He was and is one of my favorite musical collaborators, and that sentiment truly goes for all involved as well.
CP: Why did you decide to crowdsource to fund the album? Was this a positive experience for you?
BRo: I couldn’t have done it any other way to be honest, and I’m so glad I did it. It’s both nervewracking and freeing to use crowdsource funding as the fuel for a record. I’m so incredibly grateful for all who pitched in to make these songs come to life. It’s always humbling to ask for support, but even more so to receive it, coming into contact with the genuine generosity of others. I have great people in my life and this music belongs to them.
CP: On the last song on the album, "On the Last Day," you ponder a life lived and death and where you end up. Why do you think we, as humans, are so fascinated with how we've lived and what happens when we're gone—enough so that we continually write songs, books, poems about existence? How do you take this topic and write it in a way that doesn't sound trite?
Ben Rosenbush: You’re right that death, notions of the afterlife, and a desire for meaning in our short existence has consumed the imagination of human beings for years upon years. Why it has is always and forever both easy to answer and also beyond answering, of course. We are creatures who hold at the center of our psyche the terrifying concept of our mortality and finitude. It shapes how we live, and how we think about how we live.
As a person who identifies as a Christian, I am always reaching for the intimate mystery of Christ’s resurrection to be present with me. It shapes my finite life toward practices of love that give it a meaning and purpose beyond itself, and also, at the same time, by being itself fully. This song then is a form of prayer, both a lament and release at the same time. We’ll of course never understand the mystery of death, nor what will or will not, come after it. But we will never stop singing ourselves into this mystery—this living endlessness that keeps breathing within the dying moment of right now.
CP: What other songs stand out for you on this album?
BR: “ World to Come” is about my daughter and about her entering into this world and into the blooming of her life.
“Ghost” is another form of prayer, a modern-day psalm. It’s all the incoherent and inadequate things I’ve found to say to God that yet feel like the right words to sing for now. “I Am I Am” is about a relentless hope forming and reforming our present. “The Shape that Stands” explores the last moment of death and of new becoming.
“Eric Garner et al.” is a song I’m not sure I even have the right to sing from my social location, but it is my humble meditation on the racial injustices alive within our world that I and us all need to awaken to more and more. It’s a hopeful gesture of solidarity and of grieving for the pain that is right now so that we can take one more step toward realizing the new reality that is not yet.
“Echo-Echo” is a folksy singer-songwriter writing a rock song that wants to be a punk song. It spins a dystopian narrative in which the past repeats itself as an echo of echoes as human being relive erasing “the other” from the greater “us.” “Exiles” was written to invite us toward empathy for those fleeing oppression in distant countries and even in our own country.
“Miner of the Mountain” is a story song that explores humanity’s innate impulse for spirituality. “Turning of the Page” is a commentary on a variety of turning pages within our common experience that range from the effects of fundamentalism, to the impacts of climate change, to what it means to love someone, and to the entrenchment of hate within society.
“Kyle” is a song written in memory of my cousin Kyle Rosenbush. He was someone with a great deal of kindness and inquisitiveness in his heart. He loved the woods, his family, and tinkering with mechanical things. He left us too soon, taking his own life. I’ve never felt the right time to write about him until now.
CP: You've had a little time between the album release and the release show. How are you feeling about the album now? Do you feel it's lived up to your expectations of what you wanted to do with it?
BR: My expectations are and have been few. The point of this music has been to make it and share it with those willing to listen and within earshot. I’ve even called it my letter to my grandkids (though I don’t mean to place any pressure on my own kids!) because of the content is speaks of. I think there’s a great deal of success in simply creating something beautiful, or at least something that you believe and hope is beautiful, and offering it up.
Ben Rosenbush and the Brighton
Where: Hook and Ladder Theater & Lounge
When: 7:30 p.m Fri. Jan. 11
Tickets: 21+; $15 (includes a CD); more info here